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JELLO BIAFRA - London Astoria - 04 October 2001   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Thursday, 14 October 2004

I've never seen this before. After nearly three hours of performance, he takes off his shoe, and asks if we can give him money. This is Jello Biafra - punk legend, former Presidential candidate, owner of Alternative Tentacles records, the man who's made 21 albums - and a near bankrupt. Last year he lost a court case for approx $300,000 when the former members of his first band sued for loss of earnings. They claimed that he failed to promote the band sufficiently or attempt to get them national media exposure, despite splitting up some 14 years previously. As a sidenote, one of their songs is called 'MTV Get Off The Air'.

And, near enough broke but unbroken, a valiant but obviously dispirited Jello fights off all comers. He's heckled by people with a point to make, punk fanboys come up onstage all 'Waynes World' and do the we're-not-worthy routine, and even venue security try to get him off stage when he continues after the curfew. This is a man who plainly believes in his principles to the point of self-sacrifice - he probably was "fined" the evenings takings for overunning a few minutes.

Overall the effect is that of a lecture. Jello brings together some set props: Gulf War Trading Cards, old copies of 'Time', and 'Newsweek', and reads from lecture notes he's made. It makes fascinating listening, if hardly entertaining or enthralling. As an orator, he's nearest in content to a cross between Bill Hicks, Noam Chomsky, and Johnny Rotten - but without the force of personality or humour required to be successful.

Unsurprisingly, the entire tone of the evening is overshadowed by current political events - when the US became the set for the finale of a bad Bruce Willis terrorist movie. Ditching presumably, his normal paranoid guff about media suppression and hypocrisy in the US media, for a tract based on media suppression, hypocrisy, conspiracy theories, and the odd bit of wild fantasy with a war slant. Occasionally, he makes the stories he's telling as ridiculous as they plainly are - proposing for example, that Osama Bin Laden is an actor working for the US Arms Trade. Then again, based upon some of his credible, plausible, but somewhat extended conspiracy theories, anything is possible - even Osama Bin Laden's father being in partnership with the President for oil production in the Far East as recently as 1998. This by the way, is the man, who wanted to call a band Muslim Jihad back in the late '80s. Sounds like a prophet to me.

After a couple of hours of this - war theories, talk about the PMRC, about how everything is all connected and all conspiracies are part of a global conspiracy to rule the world by the moneyed elite who supress and mislead the media to keep the majority watching 'Friends' (oh please tell us something we don't know Jello!), he moves to what most of us are interested in hearing about, and exhaustedly detailed on his earlier spoken word albums, is The Dirt on his first band, that collapsed and took him to court acrimoniously several years later and emptied his bank account.

Some of the details are shocking - the fact that they sued him for not exploiting the back catalogue by not licensing the songs out to Levi's, or leasing the songs to any compilation album ('Now That's What I Call Punk ' 77!'), or making videos for MTV ('MTV Get Off The Air!'), or releasing compliation boxsets and tacky exploitative reissues. Despite the fact that all the albums and singles are readily available to anyone who wanted to buy them, and touring extensively across the world in support of his entire body of work. And despite winning the case, the remaining members of the band then sent him a bill for redesigning the sleeves (even though they already had sleeves), and released a plainly-shoddy live CD - which incidentally has six wrong notes in the first song alone - as well as gaining licensing rights. Which means that rights for their entire back catalogue were auctioned off to the highest bidder, as well as anyone who wants to use one of their songs on a dodgy CD or film can do so - all of which fly firmly in the face of the founding principles of the band. Until of course, the remaining members realised they weren't earning enough from the day jobs.

I know that we're hearing only one side of the story here, but the methods Jello uses: logical argument, facts and persuasion (none of this emotional talk of a Punk Jihad to convert fanatics here) are sound and make clear that some form of misjudgement appears to have been made. Apparently in the eyes of the court if you can't play a musical instrument, even though you can sing and do all the interviews, write all the lyrics and melodies, design the artwork, and run the record company - you aren't a musician. Jello also lets slip that the remaining members of the group have reformed to perform some reunion shows with another singer, who he tells us, was formerly a TV child star. Couldn't make it up, I reckon. There's a great film to be made about this source material - it shouldn't be a problem to buy the rights from them. Seems as if you can buy anything for the right price - except integrity.

And finally, to help him appeal in court after being stripped of $300,000 and the rights to eight years of his own work, he brings out his boot. Outside touts are asking 30 per ticket for those with a face value of 8. And inside, the man on the stage is begging for money. It all seems a rather sad episode in the life of one of the few artists who still give some credence to the very notion of "Alternative".

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